Christiansted National Historic Site

Denmark was a latecomer in the race for colonies in the New World. Columbus' voyages to the Caribbean gave Spain a monopoly in the region for well over a century. But after the English planted a colony in the Lesser Antilles in 1624, the French, the Dutch, and eventually Danes joined the scramble for empire. Seeking islands on which to cultivate sugar as well as an outlet for trade, the Danish West India & Guinea Company (a group of nobles and merchants chartered by the Crown) took possession of St. Thomas in 1672 and its neighbor St. John in 1717. Because neither island was well suited to agriculture, the company in 1733 purchased St. Croix—a larger, flatter, and more fertile island, 40 miles south—from France. Colonization of St. Croix began the next year, after troops put down a slave revolt on St. John.

For their first settlement, the Danes chose a good harbor on the northeast coast, the site of an earlier French village named Bassin. Their leader Frederick Moth was a man of some vision. Among his accomplishments were a plan for a new town, which he named Christiansted in honor of the reigning monarch, King Christian VI, and a survey of the island into plantations of 150 acres, which were offered at bargain prices to new settlers. The best land came under cultivation and dozens of sugar factories began operating. Population approached 10,000, of which nearly 9,000 were slaves imported from West Africa to work in the fields.

Even with this growth St. Croix's economy did not flourish. The planters chaffed under the restrictive trading practices of the DWI&G; Company. This monopoly so burdened planters with regulations that they persuaded the king to take over the islands in 1755. Crown administration coincided with the beginning of a long period of growth for the cane sugar industry. St. Croix became the capital of the "Danish Islands in America," as they were then called, and royal governors took up residence at Christiansted. For the next century and a half, the town's fortunes were tied to St. Croix's sugar industry.

Between 1760 and 1820 the economy boomed. Population rose dramatically, in part because free-trade policies and neutrality attracted settlers from other islands—hence the prevalence of English culture on this Danish island with a French name—and exports of sugar and rum soared. Capital was available, sugar prices were high, labor cheap. Planters, merchants, and traders—most of them—reaped great profits, which were reflected in the fine architecture of town and country. This golden age was, within a few decades, eclipsed by the rise of the beet sugar industry in Europe and North America. A drop in the price of cane sugar, an increase in planters' debts, drought, hurricanes, and the rising cost of labor after slavery was abolished in 1848 all contributed to economic decline.

As the 19th century wore on, St. Croix became little more than a marginal sugar producer, her era of fabulous wealth now a thing of the past. When the United States purchased the Danish West Indies in 1917, it was for the islands' strategic harbors, not their agriculture. The lovely town of Christiansted is a link to the old way of life here, with all its elegance, complexity, and contradiction.

Before the Danes
The first settlers on this island were migrants who swept up the Lesser Antilles from South America. By the 4th century AD there was a settlement at Salt River Bay on the island's north shore. Ten centuries later a village there had the only ceremonial plaza/ball court so far discovered in the Lesser Antilles. In 1493 on his second voyage Columbus came upon this island and named it Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). Sighting a village at Salt River Bay, he sent a boat ashore to "have speech with the natives." The Spaniards met with a canoe full of Caribs. In the ensuing fight, one Carib was killed, the rest were captured, and two Europeans were wounded, one fatally. It was the first skirmish between Europeans and indigenous peoples of America.

Regulars and Militia Though Denmark relied mostly on neutrality to defend its far-off tropical colonies, a military presence was essential in a region dominated by European rivalries and slave labor. On St. Croix, defense rested on a system of forts and batteries garrisoned by regulars from Denmark and local militia. The fort in Christiansted, shown in plan at right, was finished in 1749. Some of the construction was carried out by captured leaders of the 1733 slave uprising on St. John. Named Christiansvaern ("Christian's defense") in honor of King Christian VI, the fort was armed with 18- and 6-pounder cannon. These guns and two outlying batteries, combined with a formidable reef, dominated the harbor entrance.

Under Governor General Peter von Scholten, an aristocrat with a taste for ceremony, the military on St. Croix enjoyed perhaps its best years. He reorganized the regulars and militia and raised the status of the fire corps. Free Blacks filled the ranks of the latter; some blacks also served in the militia. Christiansvaern's garrison in 1830—at least on paper—numbered 215 officers and men, including a corp of musicians. This was nearly half of all regulars in the Danish West Indies.

Free Blacks A distinct class of Free Blacks emerged on St. Croix in the days of slavery. Some were given their freedom for faithful service; others bought freedom with money earned as artisans or by raising and selling produce from their gardens in the Sunday market. They worked as small merchants, fishermen, seamen, shoemakers, tailors, masons, coopers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. As early as 1747 a section of Christiansted-Neger Gotted—today called Free Gut—was set aside for Free Blacks to build their own houses. Between 1791 and 1815, the town's Free Blacks more than doubled their numbers, rising from 775 to 1,764. Not until 1834 were they granted full equality with whites. Free Black status for men was indicated by a red-and-white cockade worn on their hats.

Peter von Scholten has never been forgotten for his role in freeing the slaves. He arrived in the islands as a young officer in 1803, rose through the ranks, and served as governor-general from 1827-48. His companion was Anna Heegaard, a woman of color who very likely influenced his views on the humane treatment of blacks. Even though the king confirmed his emancipation decree, he was dismissed from office and stripped of his pension. He died in Denmark in 1854, a broken man.

In the West Indian Style Christiansted blends vistas of neoclassicism with a lovely natural setting of high hills and a reef-fringed harbor. The town's orderly development over two centuries owes much to the island's first governor, Frederick Moth. He conceived of Christiansted as a grand town on the order of Christiania (now Oslo, Norway) with boulevards, promenades, and handsome building lines. He placed company buildings and the best houses near the waterfront while relegating workers' cottages to the outskirts. These ideas were embodied in a remarkably progressive building code in 1747. Enforced by a succession of conscientious building inspectors, the code regulated materials and construction and even employed zoning to control growth. In one form or another this code remained in force throughout Danish rule and along with a general economic stagnation for long periods after Danish rule helped the town survive passing building fads.

Christiansted took shape at a liberating moment in architectural thought. The neo-classic style (the first "modern" style) became the dominant order in the Danish islands, reflecting wealth accumulated in their first century. The buildings were the work of anonymous craftsmen—masons and carpenters, many of them Free Blacks—in a day when a master mason or carpenter could both plan a building and put it up. West Indian neoclassical at its best is dignified, solid, and functional. Buildings are characterized by rhythmical arches, light and spacious interiors (often filled with fine mahogany furniture), arcaded sidewalks that shelter pedestrians from the sun and rain, galleries to catch breezes, hip roofs efficient at collecting rainwater in cisterns. A yellow brick, which came to the island as ship's ballast, was widely used as a building material. Some notable buildings that are still standing include the townhouse of a wealthy merchant or planter, the Steeple Building (the first Danish Lutheran church on St. Croix), the Government House, the shop/dwelling of a small merchant, and a worker's cottage.

Sugar Plantations
For a time St. Croix was one of the wealthiest sugar islands in the West Indies. The good years coincided with wars between the colonial powers. During the last decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th production was high and the price of sugar on the world market was stable. In 1803 the island's population stood at 30,000, the great majority of which (26,500) were slaves engaged in the planting, harvesting, and processing of cane. There were some 218 plantations operating in this year, with a hundred or more windmills and almost as many animal mills running night and day in season, converting sugar into gold.

Growing sugar was hard work. The idea of the indolent planter is mostly untrue. A planter and his overseer had to know how to plant a crop and bring it in, how to make sugar, molasses, and rum and get them to market, how to fund, how to manage unwilling labor and deal with grasping island factories, ship captains, and bankers. The work went on year round. For the ambitious and the ingenious, a plantation was an all but certain way to a fortune. But for most planters, it was a business loaded with risk. Planters contended with drought, hurricanes, fluctuating market prices, and the hazards of shipping. Considerable investment, much of it borrowed at high rates, was needed for buildings and machinery as well as land and slaves, for a planter was as much a manufacturer as a farmer. Sugar production on the scale of a plantation was in fact a highly integrated process from field to market that foreshadowed the coming industrial age.

Most plantations were small communities, typically 225 to 300 acres in size, but far from self-sufficient; much food, clothing, and equipment was imported. Two-thirds of the acreage was planted in cane; the rest was occupied by dwellings, garden plots for provisions, pasture, and the factory—the large, T-shaped building in which cane was transformed into muscovado, as raw sugar was called. The factory was part of an industrial complex that included a great stone windmill for squeezing juice from cane, a boiling house for reducing the juice to crystals, curing houses for drying sugar in vats and draining off molasses, warehouses, and a distillery for turning molasses into rum. The overseer's house and the slave village stood nearby. The first slave dwellings were of wattle-and-daub construction; later ones were built of masonry, usually by the slaves themselves as single cottages in orderly rows. The "great house"—the dwelling of the planter and his family—was the glory of every plantation. Nothing else so embodied a planter's luxurious mode of living. Often built by slaves, it usually sat on commanding ground, surrounded by the carriage house, stables, quarters for house servants, and other dependencies—a work of art illustrative of an age.

The best days were over by the late 1820's. Competition from beet sugar coupled with slave emancipation in 1848 and sporadic hurricanes, drought, and labor unrest through the balance of the century contributed to an irreversible economic decline. When the last sugar plantations ceased operating in the 1930's, their passing went unlamented by those who labored in their fields and factories.

Fields of Cane Sugarcane worked a revolution in Caribbean life. After sugar caught on as a staple in the French and English islands about 1650, plantations replaced small farms, indentured labor gave way to chattel slavery, and wealth accumulated at the top and misery at the bottom. Society on this island and in the West Indies generally is today the heir of these beginnings. Sugarcane is an Old World species, a member of the grass family, and grows readily in this climate. Work began in the fall, the rainy season, with gangs of slaves digging trenches for cuttings. The droughts were weeded until knee high. Sixteen months after planting the cane was 8 feet tall and ready for cutting. The harvest was the busiest time of the year. Working from first light to last, slaves stripped off the leaves, cut down the cane with their hooked bills and stacked the stalks into carts for the mill. Grinding went on night and day. Workers passed canes twice through the mill's rollers to increase juice extraction. The juice dripped into a collecting box and from there ran by trough to the boiling house.

Making Sugar Cane juice flowed straight from the mill to the boiling house, where it was reduced to a moist, brown sugar called muscovado. A boiling master, usually a slave valued for his skill at the process, directed work. Along one wall stood a receiving vat and next to it a battery of successively smaller cauldrons (called coppers) sitting over a fire fueled by bagasse-dried crushed cane stalks. On the opposite wall were shallow cooling pans. After skimming off impurities and adding lime, workers ladled the juice from copper to copper, stirring and skimming. At the last and hottest copper, the rapidly thickening juice was carefully watched over. If the boiling master could produce a sugary thread between his thumb and forefinger, cooking was done. At his cry of "strike," workers turned the moist crystals into wooden pans to cool. This sugar was packed in hogsheads—huge barrels of 1,600-pound capacity. The hogsheads were placed on racks and the molasses drained off. After a few weeks, when the sugar was dry, the hogsheads were topped off with fresh sugar, sealed, and branded. Slaves loaded the hogsheads onto oxcarts and transported them to the town wharfs for export. Molasses was a lucrative by-product. Some was consumed on the plantation, but most was used to make rum, which was exported to Europe or North America.

Distilling Rum Rum—that stuff of West Indian life—was the plantation's second crop. It was made by fermenting water and molasses 5 parts to 1 in a vat with a measure of skimmings, oranges, and herbs to taste. After a week, the mix was heated in a still. The vapors passed to a doubler, gaining strength, and from the doubler through condensing coils into a vat. Emerging as 120 proof rum, it was aged and barreled for export. Cruzan rum was among the best.

The Greathouse The greathouse was a planter's joy and pride. It was usually built in the prevailing neo-classical style by slaves and sometimes artisans imported for the purpose. Like the mill, the house sat on high ground to catch prevailing breezes. From the porch a planter could survey his domain. The earliest estate houses on St. Croix were relatively modest wooden affairs with separate kitchens to reduce the risk of fire. From the 1770's on, accumulated wealth enabled planters to build with limestone and brick. Some houses featured a staircase sweeping up to the main level, to a parlor, the dining room, sleeping quarters, and perhaps an office and library. Rooms were airy with high ceilings. The planter's wife went to great expense to fill the house with fine mahogany furniture and imported silver, crystal, porcelain and linen. The most important supporting buildings were the cookhouse (with banks of ovens and grates), stables, and servants' quarters.

The planter's wife presided over this world. She saw to all things domestic and frequently organized social events. She was assisted by a host of servants, usually specially selected blacks, who were brought into the household to cook, clean, tend children, and look after the horses and carriages. The duties of these blacks and their relationship to the planter and his family gave them a measure of independence and considerable rank over field hands.

Life of the Blacks Between settlement in 1734 and abolition of the slave trade in 1803, thousands of blacks—the numbers can never be known—were brought to St. Croix to work in the fields. It was their labor—hard and monotonous—that underlay St. Croix's wealth. A slave's day began at dawn and continued until dark, with two hours off for a meal, six days a week. At crop time, work went on around the clock, followed by a few days of festivity—a high point of the year for slaves. Males and females labored together in the fields, with their children in tow, planting, weeding, cutting, according to the season. They worked in the mill and boiling house, tended stock, carted sugar to the dock, served in the household, constructed buildings, became artisans. Amenities were few. They lived in masonry huts of their own construction, arranged in rows for control. Clothing was sewn from annual allotments of linen and wool. Food was scanty—doles of corn meal and herring—augmented with produce grown in their garden plots. The surplus was sold in the public market. Even under slavery, elements of African customs persisted in language, religion, and food.

Until Denmark outlawed its slave race in 1803, Christiansted was an important port on the infamous Triangular Trade, which took trinkets and rum from Europe to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean, and sugar and molasses to New England or Europe. The middle passage was sheer horror. So many dead and dying were tossed overboard, said a captain, that the "the sea lanes to the West Indies were carpeted with the bones of black Africa." At Christiansted, the survivors were herded into a compound and auctioned off to planters and wealthy city dwellers.

The Napoleonic Wars and British occupations (1801, 1807-15) interrupted old trade patterns with Europe and the United States. When peace returned, the United States soon became the island's chief trading partner. The link even survived high tariffs protecting the fledgling American beet sugar industry. Long attracted by the islands good harbors, and fearing German encroachment, the United States purchased the islands from Denmark for $25 million in 1917. The sale only made formal a long-standing economic relationship.

Danish Customs House
Kings Wharf
Christiansted, VI 00820-4611
(340) 773-1460

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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